Gentle, Caring Robots at the International Robot Exhibition iREX
Our robot overlords showed their gentler side in the Service Robots hall at the International Robot Exhibition in December at Big Sight, Tokyo. There were robot suits to assist caregivers with heavy lifting in nursing or retirement homes, exomuscle systems to help in rehabilitation, and even robot pillows to help sleep-apnea sufferers.

Many of the robots were aimed at Japan's rising elderly population. The Loco-Pyon robot is a soft-toy mouse figure that encourages house-bound seniors to exercise daily. Loco-Pyon performs squats with the locomotive-syndrome sufferer and sends an email confirmation to family or caregivers.

The same lab is also behind the revolutionary robot for sleep-apnea sufferers in the shape of a cute soft-toy bear pillow. The system detects a drop in blood-oxygen levels and activates and the polar bear's arm to gently tickle the sleeper's face to encourage a change in sleeping position. (If the blood-oxygen level falls dangerously, the bear gives the sleeper a friendly slap in the chops.)

Visitors were spoilt for choice for exomuscle systems or power suits. Most were belt-and-mechanical-trousers combos that gave lumbar support for caregivers. The KAI-R system features strap-on motors to assist in rehabilitation of people with walking difficulties. Mitsubishi Electric's power assist suit with manipulator arms was a heavy-duty exoskeleton giving the wearer super-lifting powers on a building site - albeit in a very clunky, industrial design.

There was only one creepy android from Kokoro Co. Ltd. It was the usual female receptionist type, intoning a monotonous monologue in a high-pitched voice with a creepy half-smile. It even made weak jokes about sexual harassment, and claimed it wanted to take singing and dancing lessons. Women at information counters up and down the country should be in fear of their jobs.

Alas, Kokoro did not bring any of their life-size Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus robots currently on show at the Shanghai Natural History Museum or giant praying mantis and locust robots that debuted recently in Osaka.

They standout toys were the great little bots developed by Meccano and Omnibot. The Meccanoid G15 and G15KS are toy robot kits comprising a meccano construction set with a programmable meccabrain.

The cute skeletal cyborgs can copy dance and kung-fu moves, and boast over 1,000 pre-programmed phrases and jokes to interact with their human underlings. The small 61cm version already on the market can also be transformed into a dog.
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